Around Lake Atitlan and getting lost at La Iguana Perdida

At the water at Atitlan. View from La Iguana Perdida, Santa Cruz La Laguna.

Lake Atitlan is reputed to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It is a large volcanic crater lake, a mile high and nearly 1,000 feet deep, ringed by volcanoes and small townships. Aldous Huxley famously said: “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” It is indeed beautiful; an easy-going place where people come to visit and many end up staying put.

Though twisty paved roads do exist high above the waterline, much transport around the lake it done via water taxi or footpath. The water taxis are operated by a cabal and have a, shall we say, “flexible” pricing scheme depending on time of day, whether you are a tourist or a local, and which crew member you ask.

A peak from inside the water taxi.

It is a big lake with options on where to stay. I heard the most travel chatter about two towns: San Pedro La Laguna and San Marcos La Laguna. San Pedro, one of the largest towns with a population upwards of 9,000, was touted as backpacker central with the best nightlife. San Marcos was described as the most beautiful place to stay on the lake, more serene and devoted to yoga, natural living, spirituality, and the hippie lifestyle. Which to choose?

I decided San Pedro would be a safe bet to start. But it was not to be; we got off on the wrong foot and stayed at odds. Walking off the dock into San Pedro was the first time I felt accosted on this trip. Tuktuk drivers and locals on foot ruthlessly came at me asking “where you going?”, “hostel hostel”, “Mullet’s or Yo Mama?” (two party hostels in town). A commission system for delivering guests fuels this aggression. My “hostel” was only a restaurant with a few rooms upstairs and no community, the wifi was awful, it rained, and nowhere did I feel like I was actually on a lake. I found the gringo party scene gimmicky. Here I witnessed my very first Central American drug deal: two white wannabe Rastafarians at 1pm in the middle of the main tourist drag. Classy. And to cap things off, the cafe with movies closes at 3pm (to facilitate the owners’ nights out apparently); who starts watching movies before 1pm though, honestly?

Approaching the San Pedro-Pana dock.

As I met other travelers and heard about what goes on in the gringo community, I discovered that (to me) it is not a “backpacker” spot per se but instead a town of cheap fun where longterm Spanish students party hard and have LOADS of drama. Oi, the stories some of these gals tell! Add in the day trip to Chichi market I wrote about earlier and you have the making for two unsatisfying days. It was time for me to move on.

A friend from Xela traveling a few days ahead of me raved about her experience in Santa Cruz La Laguna, a place I would not have otherwise considered. I thankfully took her advice and Santa Cruz became my home for six days where I fully embraced what one does around the lake–relax. Santa Cruz is one of the smaller towns on the lake, barely a blip on the map. It is simply four hotels along the water, a few private homes nestled in the hillside, and a small town center ten minutes up the hill. The hotels, connected by a beautiful walking path occupy a gorgeous spot with the best views of the opposite volcanoes. Each has a restaurant, and three out of four have a nightly three course prix fixe menu.

Walking over to Isla Verde for lunch–best food in Santa Cruz–on their beautiful deck.

I found my refuge at La Iguana Perdida, a relaxed and homey hostel right on the lake with everything you need to kick back: beautiful grounds, many great spots to read, a dive shop and school, movies (I arrived desperately in need of a movie after the failure in San Pedro and found West Side Story in the dvd collection!), a day spa (guess who got a facial :-)), morning yoga, a pool table, an outdoor stone sauna, hammocks, trivia night, bar and happy hour, sequestered wired internet to keep everyone offline and social, family style dinner every night, beautiful views, and a friendly atmosphere. Did I mention my bunk (the most excellent top loft spot, fit for a princess in her tower) in the open air dorm was just $3.50USD per night? I adored it.

La Iguana Perdida, one step up from the dock.
The dinner menu and Balto, sans his other half: a skinnier pooch with a snarly grin that his owner affectionately called the Steve Buscemi of dogs.
My lair, high above the riff raff. 😉
Home sweet home.

Later in the week I traveled to San Marcos for a day trip during their Festival of Consciousness. At first the town didn’t seem like much–walking paths up from the docks that weave between small restaurants and hotels. It is quiet, with much of the activity going on behind closed doors, including the festival. After wandering about looking for the festivities, I finally found a schedule of events posted that had a very neighborhood feel with members of the community teaching and hosting workshops, for instance “Meditation and the Power of Crystals, 2:00pm, Tony’s house”. I ate lunch in a cafe with a wicked pesto sandwich and made friends with one of the young owners. As we chatted about ex-pat life in Guatemala and small town politics, he constantly and warmly greeted passersby as they walked between festival sessions. It most definitely is a tight-knit community with much to discover beneath the surface.

But Santa Cruz and the Iguana in particular continued to be my favorite. People slow down here and often stay for a while, which means a great sense of community between guests. My intended three days grew to six very shortly after arriving. I made a bunch of new friends and spent day after day reading, eating, chatting, enjoying the view, and watching movies. Time slips away between naps and happy hours. Ah, lake life finally living up to the hype. It lulled me into laziness and affection. A little last morning love and panorama:

2 thoughts on “Around Lake Atitlan and getting lost at La Iguana Perdida

  1. You know it! The lemon bars were actually one of their best desserts, along with the stew being one of my favorite entrees. The soup was almost always… questionable.


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